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Getting started on classical Latin
Getting started on classical Latin

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4.1 Inflection

The underlying grammatical rules of Indo-European languages (for example, English, Gaelic, French, German, Russian, Latin, Greek, Punjabi) are similar, but it is not always easy to appreciate this when you are beginning to learn a new language. A common feature of all these languages is the ‘inflection’ of nouns, adjectives and verbs, whereby the end of the word is changed according to its function in the sentence. For example, woman, woman’s, women and women’s are all inflections of a noun. This and these are inflections of an adjective, and teach, teaches, teaching and taught are inflections of a verb.

Modern English uses inflected forms in a fairly limited way. But many languages use them much more than English does – including Latin which is a heavily inflected language. In English, we have, on the whole, exchanged the inflections for a very strict system of word order. For example, ‘Those girls are feeding the horses’ means one thing and ‘The horses are feeding those girls’ means something rather different. Similarly, ‘You are going to Spain tomorrow’ is different from ‘Are you going to Spain tomorrow?’ We can tell who is doing what to whom, in the first example, and whether something is a statement or a question, in the second example, from the order of the words.

This is much less true of Latin. The endings of words (the inflections) are vital to understanding how words relate to each other and enable us to work out the meaning of a sentence. When learning Latin (or Greek, German or Russian), we have to change our reading habits. We need to look even more carefully at the ends of words than at the beginnings, and only if we do this will the meaning of a sentence become clear and unambiguous. In learning Latin, vocabulary is important, but just as important is the system of word endings.